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Saturday, October 31, 2009

Rituals and Practices - 1

Photo of a homam: courtesy of Sharanya

Dear Asha, Ajay, Ravi,and Ariana

Rituals are symbolic languages of cultures. The root word for ritual is ritus in Latin, which means “to fit together”. The symbols of all cultures of the world are made of common elements: fire in the form of candles or lamps or open fire; water to pour or sprinkle; earth or stone or products of earth such as rice; and air in the form of sound (chanting or bell). These elements are combined with an altar and special gestures to complete the rituals.

Just as images help us visualize the formless, rituals connect us with the Universal principle. In addition, rituals help us connect with others in our society and rest of the humanity since these are practiced by members of a group.

People of Vedic (Hindu) religion follow several rituals, practices and sacrifices in their daily life. All of them are symbolic of certain beliefs current at one time in the history of the tradition. For example, samskaras are purification rites performed at crucial stages of one’s life such as first birthday, introduction of solid food, marriage etc. Another practice consists of special rites performed on new moon day or during eclipse for helping our ancestors. The reason was that our ancestors (pithru) were supposed to live in the chandraloka (moon) after death and we give them offerings to help them ease out of cycles of birth and death.

It is clear to me from my readings that the Tantric system has been the source of many rituals and taboos during prayers and pujas. The Tantric system is separate from the four major Vedas and has influenced both Hinduism and Buddhism.

Rituals and practices have become embedded in our culture and upbringing. They have become part of our tradition. Many of them have lost their meaning or relevance (for example, special rites on the day of eclipse). We do not know the symbolic meaning of many other practices and yet observe them. For example, I notice that Sudharsana Homam has become fashionable among the immigrant Indians in US. Did you know that Sudharsana is a meta-representation of Vishnu’s disc (chakra) which itself is a meta-representation of our mind?

Many of these rituals were prescribed to obtain specific benefits, such as success in studies, success in business, harvest bounty etc. We practice them because we wish to succeed and these rituals give us extra strength. Many of them are followed also because of fear of bad consequences if we do not observe them. Some of our ancient texts suggest severe consequences for the non-observers. For example, Baudhayana Dharma shastra says: “jaayamaanau vai brahmanah thribih runava jaayathey”. The meaning of this statement is that brahmins are born with 3 debts – one each to the Rishis (sages), Gods and the manes (ancestors). If one does not perform sacrifices to pay off these debts, it will lead to bad results (akaraney prathyavaaya). No wonder that these sacrifices were followed by our ancestors with diligence.

In this section, I take a few rituals and explain their symbolic meaning. I am not a vedic scholar. Nor am I a Sanskrit scholar. However, when I read many of our Upanishads and other books, I keep looking for passages that explain the meaning of symbols and rituals. The following explanations are based on passages I have read for myself. I will be glad to share the names of the texts and passages with interested readers.


Our ancestors performed several types of sacrifices (yagnas). Those mentioned in the Sruthi’s (Vedas) such as Asvameda Yagna and Vaajasneya yagna are not in vogue anymore. Wealth and power were required of the performers of these sacrifices. Usually Kshatriya kings performed these yagnas with the help of Brahmin priests. However, several other kinds of sacrifices mentioned in the smrithis and puranas are still being practiced.

Most of the yagnas are performed with agni (fire-god) at the center and as the conveyor of our offerings and oblations to the appropriate deity. There are several hundred such fire rituals. But, all sacrifices do not need agni in the center.

The primary idea is that we should be grateful to the Divine Power for all that has been given to us in our lives and we should express our gratitude by performing sacrifices. According to Manu Smriti there are five such sacrifices – panchayagnas. First is brahmayagna to satisfy the rishis. Study and teaching of the Vedas accomplishes this duty. Devayagna is to satisfy the deities. This is accomplished by the practice of pujas (daily worship) and fire rituals called homa. In the homa, one invokes the fire God (agni) and one makes offerings into the fire to various gods while uttering mantras and prayers. Pitru yagnam is meant to repay our debts to our ancestors. This is accomplished by a ritual called tarpanam and also the practice of shraardha (performed every year at the anniversary of the death). Shraardha is performed with fire in the center. Feeding the hungry, giving food to others, to the birds and animals is called bhuta yagna. The final and fifth is athithi yagna which is the duty to a guest who comes unannounced (athithi).

In addition, the vedic tradition recommends the practice of several purification rites called samskaras . These are meant to make the individual become aware of the sanctity of life and his connection to the cosmos. Some of them are meant to be performed every day (nithya karmas such as agnihotram), some are occasional (naimittika karma such as upanayanam) and some are performed for specific purpose, to gain a specific result. Many of these samskaras are performed with an altar of fire in the center.

Why is agni (fire-god) so important in many of these rituals?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Symbols and Substance: Images and Icons

Dear Asha,Ajay,Ravi and Ariana,

Our ancestors maintained that there is ONLY one Original Source and that people call IT by different names. If so, how come Hindus worship so many Gods? In this essay, I wish to answer this question, as I understand it.

I explained the meaning behind the forms we worship in the previous essays. When you read them I hope you understood that the forms of Gods are symbolic representations of divine qualities. Their hands, head(s), the objects in Their hands and the ornaments adorning Their body represent concepts. They are metaphors for Divine qualities and reminders of our relationship to the Unity behind diversity. Images of “Gods” look like human and therefore approachable. At the same time those heads and hands and the objects they carried set them apart from us and made them half-human and half something else (eg: Ganesha, Shanmuga, Narasimha, Hayagriva etc. Some examples from Greek mythology are Medusa and Centaur.

Metaphysical discussions on the origin and the nature of the Universe and our relationship to the Original Cause have been going on since the dawn of civilization. There are two major basic and opposing points of view. One emphasizes the abstract concepts behind the singularity or the unity behind the multiplicity. This approach is philosophical, demands self-inquiry and needs personal effort and discipline. This is the path of spirituality and is very difficult to follow for most people. The other gives a name to that Primordial Unity, emphasizes a personal relationship to this Original source with a form (God), and gives an organizational structure to worship this God. This method is easier to follow for most people, particularly children. This is the path of religion.

“In the beginning, there was nothing” says a famous hymn from Rg Veda. How did something come from nothing? How did this universe start? This question has occupied the minds of philosophers and mystics for centuries both in the east and the west. There are, of course, several opinions. One group says that the universe came out of one or more primordial substances such as space, air, fire, water and earth and that there is no other original principle. This was the view of the Samkhya system of Indian philosophy and some Greek philosophers .

Another group follows the common human psychology which requires an explanation for everything in the form of a causative agent and an intention. This says that there has to be One original source just as there can be no clay pot without a potter and clay. The various activities of the cosmos (and of the world we live in) are not carried out by the material objects (made out of the five basic substances of speace, air, fire,water and earth) by themselves, but by an active spirit called variously as Purusha, deity, Deva, and angel. This spirit got Its energy from the Original source.

The One original source behind everything in this universe has different names in different cultures. For example , we call it Brahman (Parama purusha, parabrahman) in the Vedic Hindu tradition and this Primordial Source is called Wakanda in Sioux, Orenda in Iroquois, Mulungu in Bantu, Allah in Islamic and Yahveh in the Jewish traditions. In the Christian tradition, I have seen several names. One is God-head. The other is the Holy Spirit. Yet another is the “Father in the Heaven”. All the ancient traditions recognized such a single, primary “divine” central force or spirit from which everything flashed forth and from which they derived their energy for function

The derived spirits (purusha, deity,deva etc) common to all non-christian traditions were mistakenly called the Gods by western missionaries and writers. The more suitable word is angel, akin to the Sanskrit word Angirasa. True translation of the word angirasa is “the essence or the force behind (rasa) the parts (anga)”. Deity (Deva, similar to divine) is another appropriate word as mentioned earlier.

In the vedic Hindu system there are several such deities, so called gods. For example, there is Indra (the king of the devas or gods), Varuna (the king of rain or ocean), Soma (the lord of the moon), Rudra (lord of the beasts), Yama (the lord of death), Mrthyu ( the lord of diseases) and so on. That is at the cosmic level.

At the human level, specific intelligent energies present in the subtle plane are considered to be essential for the functions of the human body. Thus, at a personal level, Indra is the force behind the power of the hands, Vishnu of the feet, Agni or Fire is for speech, the Sun for the eyes, Varuna for the tongue, Ashvini devatas for the nose, dhik for the ears, Mithra of excretory organs, Prajapathi for generative organs. Indeed, the root for the word deva is div, which means to illuminate. The word deva was used originally to refer to the sense organs (eyes,ears etc) since they illuminate their objects and therefore the name deva is appropriate for the ruler of each of the sense organs.

There are corresponding sets of so-called Gods in the Greek and Roman mythologies also. For example, the supreme God in the Greek pantheon is Zeus, probably akin to Indra of Hindu mythology and Jupiter of Roman mythology. The Lord of the ocean is Poseidon in Greek and Neptune in the Roman mythology. Demeter is the presiding deity of agriculture in the Greek mythology and Ceres in the Roman mythology (the root for the word, cereals). Goddess of beauty and love is Aphrodite in the Greek mythology and Venus in the Roman mythology and so on.

Although all cultures believe in ONE superior power, they all personified this power. This is the projection of human features and qualities on the divine. This is what is called anthropomorphism, making “a God in man’s image”. Since all cultures also believed that the Divine Power is the force behind all of nature, they also personified the various aspects of nature – like the Earth, the Rain, the Sun, the Moon etc. These are the so-called “gods and goddesses” according to the western writers.

Christian missionaries applied the word “god” “as a general term for the usually non-personified greater power”. The missionaries used the word god to translate words they encountered such as Jumala (Finnish deity for sky), Mulungu of Bantu and Brahman of India. Of course, all these words referred to ONE supreme power “energizing” every aspect of nature – and not an individual “god” as the missionaries understood. In Sanskrit, the word closest to the English “god” is “deva”. In translation, deva is close to the word angel of the biblical tradition.

The jump from this attribution of the name “God” to the deities of the “other” groups to criticizing all earlier groups as “heathens” who worship multiple gods was easy. The Jewish prohibition of making “images” of God came out of the need “to separate its deity beyond all human descriptions from the anthropomorphic gods of semitic and Egyptian neighbours” . This anti-idolatory tradition of the Jewish roots was taken up by Christianity and Islam that grew out of Judaism.

Hindus and other polytheists realize that the symbols point beyond the intermediate “forms” or idols (or murthis or vigrahas) to the ONE Absolute Primordial Principle. To them these deities are many distinct aspects of the ONE reality. They know that “a deity is a limited being and not the ultimate Reality itself. Gods and Goddesses can, however, become portals to the Reality” (Feuerstein G. Tantra: The Path to Ecstasy. Shambala 1998)

Vedas themselves tried repeatedly to tell us that the Formless Unity is the only ultimate Reality and not the multitudes of Gods with forms. Yoga Vasishta 32.1.8 says: “Saakaaram bhajasthaavath …… Niraakare parey thathve” which means that we worship with forms (until our mind is clear) and we reach a stage of spontaneous abiding in the Formless Truth.

Gita 12.5 states:
“Kleshodhikatharah theshaam avyakthasakthachethasaam
avyaktha hi gathirdhukkam dehavadhbih avaapyathe”
which means that the man who wishes to concentrate his mind on the imperceptible suffers because to the human clothed in the body it is inherently difficult to reach the state of imperceptible.

In Chapter 7, sloka 24 of Gita, Lord Krishna says:
“Avyaktham vyakthimaapannam manyanthe maamabuddhayah
param bhavaavam ajaanantho maamaavyayanuththaman” I
which translates to “ignorant people worship my perceptible form with a human frame. That is not my true form. My imperceptible form is my true form”.

Finally, Vedantha Sutra says Na Prathike na saha which means “He is not in the symbols; He is beyond them”. In addition, Yoga Vasishta 31:55 states: “Nithyam avyapadheshyaapi kathamchit vyapadheshyathi” which translates to “although It cannot be named, somehow It gets named”. Brihadaaranyaka Upanishd 1.4.6 says
Thadhyadidamaahuh amum yajaamum yajethi, ekaikam devam
which means “people pay sacrifice to this God and to that God considering them to be separate. But, they are multiple projections of Him. He Himself is all the Devas”.

If so, how did we end up with multitudes of images and sects following different deities and their images? Bal Gangadhar Tilak quotes Yoga Vasishta in his remarkable book called Gita Rahasya (Volume 1, Page 575) and gives a possible explanation for the creation of images in our culture.
Aksharaavagamalabdha ye yatha
sthulavarthuladhrushath parigrahah shuddha
Buddha parilabdhaaya thatha
dharumrunmayashilaah mamaarchanam
which means “just as we arrange pieces of stones in front of a child to acquaint him with letters, so are idols made of wood (dharu), clay(mrit) or stone(shila) in order to acquire knowledge of the Pure Paramatman (the Supreme Spirit)”.

In spite of all these repeated assertions, the reality is that people cannot focus on an abstract spirit. Children certainly cannot. Therefore, our forefathers created several meta-representations of philosophical concepts and made images out of them. These meta-representations became the so-called Gods. The images are the vigrahas or moorthy’s of the Gods.

In Sanskrit, Pratika is a symbol (for example OM) and Pratima is an image or idol or figure. Indeed, Visishtadvaita (qualified monism) posits five forms of God or Ishvara (ruler), namely para (transcendent, absolute), vyuha (manifestation), vibhava (incarnations, 10 of them), antharyamin (indweller, atman) and archa ( an icon or idol). As you can see, idol or icon is considered a form of God. The Sanskrit word for the form or idol is “Vigraha”. The word “vigraha” is the opposite of “graha”. “Graha” is to hold or to contain. “Vigraha” represents that which cannot be contained.

Images and icons are symbols. We use symbols all the time. National flags are symbols. The Golden Arch of McDonald and the tri-colored ball of Pepsi are symbols. In the spiritual sphere, Jack Kornfeld pointed out that symbols are “images of awakening”. These outer images point to our inner world and the relationship between the inner world and the outer world. Images are used in all spiritual traditions – even those which prohibit image worship. In Buddhism which started as a renegade is full of images, such as the Bodhisattva of compassion and Manjusri of illusion and Avalokiteswara of listening.

In the Indian mythology, each one of the Gods was endowed with special qualities and elaborate stories (puranas) were created around each one of these figures. The idea is that each one of those Gods will appeal to different human personalities, so that each one of us can use our favorite “image” to meditate on. The ultimate goal however is to aim for the formless Brahman through this individual, private, favorite medium.

The problem however is that people get attached to one form, mistake the symbol for the substance, develop elaborate rituals for worship, follow esoteric practices, spin elaborate theology and create meta-representation of the meta-representation of that particular form. They then cling to the symbols,pujas and rituals. They do not proceed any further in their spiritual practice and enter blind alleys. That is the tragedy of blind faith and closed minds.

In summary, vedic Hindu tradition says that the Almighty is ONE, by whatever name we call IT. It concedes that ordinary men and women need an object, a sound, something to focus on. It recognizes that most of us, particularly children, cannot meditate on a Formless, Absolute, abstract Brahman or Atman. In order to help grasp the formless Brahman, the wise sages of India gave many forms to the formless. It is reasonable to start prayers and meditation at the altar of one’s favorite deity or god or angel with form or idol. Once we have reached a certain level, our tradition asks us to go beyond the form to the formless, from Symbol to Substance.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Symbols and Substance: Arthi ( with Camphor)

Arthi is the act of burning camphor or using a lamp with wick as an offering to God. It is one of the 16 steps in Puja. Burning camphor has a symbolic meaning. When it burns, it leaves nothing behind. When we burn camphor, we are symbolically requesting the Lord that we become one with Him/Her and leave no residue behind.

Also, when camphor burns, the center is white; the middle portion is golden color; there is the outer smoke. These represent Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva respectively. We already saw that these three in turn represent creation, protection and destruction.

While performing arti, the priest may utter the following mantra. “Thameva bhantham anubhathi sarvam; thasya bhaasa sarvamidam vibhathi”. A simple translation is: “Because of Him, everything is illuminated,made visible and become perceptible”.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Symbols and Substance: Anjali

This position of hands is well known, both when we worship and when we greet each other. There is a deep symbolic meaning to the fingers of the hand and to this anjali.

The little finger represents human ego. The ring finger stands for desire. The middle finger represents spiritual ignorance. The index finger stands for that aspect of God who is in everyone (Paramatma) and the thumb represents that aspect of God who is in us (Jivatma).

By placing our hands together in this way, we are reminding ourselves to get rid of the ego and desire (the two fingers representing them are away from our body), understand our ignorance (middle finger) which prevents us from recognizing that the Paramatma and Jivatma are the same and they are both close to our hearts.